The great coal cover-up

FROM Murrurundi to Mayfield, thousands of residents living alongside the Hunter’s coal corridor are demanding greater protection from the hundreds of tonnes of fine toxic dust dumped in their communities annually.

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With coal exports through the Port of Newcastle expected to significantly expand over the next decade, the Newcastle Herald has joined with Hunter communities calling for all Hunter coal wagons to be covered.

Previous studies indicate an uncovered, loaded 80-wagon train emits an average 685.6grams of dust per kilometre.

Reported by Matthew Kelly, filmed and produced by Dean Osland.

If annual throughput at the Port of Newcastle reaches 330million tonnes as predicted in 2022, resulting in 54,000 loaded-train movements, an estimated 37tonnes of coal dust would be emitted per kilometre every year along some sections of track.

The figure does not include dust from empty trains.

Environmental groups, public health experts and civic leaders have become increasingly concerned about the environmental, health, social and economic impacts of dust pollution on Hunter communities.

Of greatest concern is the impact of fine particulate matter less than 2.5microns that can travel several hundred metres from its source.

‘‘Significant work needs to be done to reduce dust pollution if the health of large numbers of people is not going to be compromised, especially the most vulnerable, including children, the elderly, and those with existing health conditions,’’ University of Newcastle public health expert Associate Professor Nick Higginbotham said.

Singleton Shire councillor Lyn MacBain said coal dust was among the most complained-about issues in the local government area.

“Trains are coming through our town every five minutes and the number of people who are exposed to dust is increasing,” she said.

Environment Minister Robyn Parker, whose electorate of Maitland is on the coal transport corridor, is under increasing pressure to reduce the impact of coal-dust emissions.

A spokesman for the minister said levels of particulates generated by coal-train movements in the Hunter was under investigation.

As part of the investigation, the Environment Protection Authority issued the rail line manager, Australian Rail Track Corporation, with a legally binding pollution reduction program in September 2011.

The program includes the installation of dust monitors adjacent to the train line at Metford and Mayfield.

The spokesman said there was no reliable data to indicate whether coal trains with uncovered coal loads increased ambient dust levels.

‘‘The outcomes of this investigation will allow the NSW government to determine if any measures are required to control and reduce coal-dust emissions from trains transporting coal or if further studies are required.

‘‘Also, coal trains move relatively slowly through urban areas and in the Hunter Valley, unlike in Queensland, coal is washed prior to being loaded onto wagons trains, this helps to reduce dust.’’

An Australian Rail and Track Corporation spokeswoman said the investigation was being completed.

‘‘At this time we’ll be discussing how these results will be shared with other stakeholders and the community,’’ she said.

QR National and Pacific National haul millions of tonnes of coal through the Hunter each year.

Neither company would comment on its willingness to adopt covered wagons, however, they stressed they were committed to complying with regulatory requirements.

‘‘We work with ARTC and the Hunter Valley mines to ensure we fulfil all of our regulatory responsibilities on this corridor and we take those responsibilities as a hauler seriously,’’ a QR National spokesman said.

NSW Minerals Council chief executive Stephen Galilee said the council continued to work with the Upper Hunter community on the issue of coal-train dust.

‘‘Coal operators are working closely with them to understand the nature of the issue in NSW, so that the most appropriate actions can be taken,’’ he said.

Greens MP and environment spokeswoman Cate Faehrmann said existing legislation relating to coal-dust emissions was weak.

‘‘Not only is the legislation weak, but the Environment Protection Authority lacks the gumption to force the industry to cover loads,’’ she said.

‘‘Instead of cutting the department’s budget and stripping away staff, the minister needs to give the EPA more resources and more teeth.’’

Ms Faehrmann was among many who pointed out the inconsistency between road and rail haulage requirements.

‘‘Roads and Maritime Services requires all coal trucks on roads to cover their loads. It’s completely unacceptable that the government doesn’t require it for coal carried by rail,’’ she said.

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